NOTE: This 1-pager was originally prepared in conjunction with the 2022 Altarena Playhouse production of this musical, for which I served as Music Director.
La Cage Aux Folles (“The Crazy Cage” or “The Cage of Crazies”) is a musicalized adaptation of the 1978 French comedy film of the same name, with a book by actor/playwright/bookwriter Harvey Fierstein (author of Torch Song Trilogy, Kinky Boots, others; featured actor in Torch Song Trilogy, Independence Day, Mulan, Hairspray, others) and a score by Jerry Herman (Hello, Dolly!, Mame, many others). There was also an American film remake titled The Birdcage with an all-star cast, in which the story was moved from 1980s French Riviera to 1990s Miami Beach, but the musical closely follows the original French film (which was not a musical).
Albin, a drag performer in Saint Tropez in the 1980s, and Georges, club owner and Albin’s husband of 20 years, have raised a son, Jean-Michel, born of a long-ago heterosexual dalliance by Georges. Young Jean-Michel has fallen in love with Anne, the daughter of a homophobic politician who has vowed to shut down all drag clubs. Anne’s family now wants to meet Jean-Michel’s parents before giving her permission to marry Jean-Michel. The story of how this conflict unwinds and gets resolved is by turns hilariously funny, poignant, and ultimately uplifting, and is complemented by a highly memorable and rousing musical score.
“I Am What I Am”
A major theme that runs through the show is asserting one’s own identity and independence in the face of exclusion or oppression. This theme is treated both lightly/comedically, as in the opening number when the club dancers (“Les Cagelles”), a mixed group of drag queens and women, tell us:
We are what we are, and what we are is an illusion.
We love how it feels, putting on heels, causing confusion.
But they’re just as quick to remind us that sometimes it can be really hard to stand up and assert who you are, but you have to stand proud and not let yourself be labelled by others:
We face life, though it's sometimes sweet and sometimes bitter.
Face life, with a little guts and lots of glitter.
Look under our frocks: girdles and jocks, proving we are what we are.
Later in the show, in a moment of personal crisis, the theme is restated with more gravitas, as Zaza (the drag queen alter-ego of Albin) takes over the song and changes the lyrics, resulting in one of the most emotionally charged Act 1 finales in the literature:
I am what I am, I don't want praise, I don't want pity.
I bang my own drum...Some think it's noise...I think it's pretty!
It's my world, that I want to have a little pride in.
My world—and it's not a place I have to hide in!
Zaza/Albin moves from self-pity to anger and ultimately to pride and defiance, demanding that the world accept her just as she is:
Life's not worth a damn till you can say:
"Hey world, I am what I am!"
I Am What I Am is significant because most of Albin’s solo numbers to this point have been sung as his alter-ego Zaza, in whose skin Albin feels much more comfortable. Here, Albin’s own persona “takes over” the song from Zaza as he asserts ownership of not only his alter ego, but his pride in living his life in exactly that way.
Cultural significance and the AIDS crisis
As I write this in 2022, the idea that you should be proud to claim your own identity and speak in your own voice is part of the cultural zeitgeist in the US, so the show’s affirmation of that theme may not seem particularly surprising to today’s audiences.
But it’s easy to overlook how brave this was when the musical first appeared, in 1984. As bookwriter Harvey Fierstein has said in various interviews, queer people had long been a major force in musical theater, and many musicals and plays had been written about them. But La Cage was among the first to enjoy enormous commercial success, putting the stories of queer people, told by queer voices, in front of a mainstream audience. Even its creators were somewhat surprised by its widespread appeal; it won Best Musical at that year’s Tony Awards (beating out Sondheim’s Sunday In the Park With George).
Furthermore, at that time the AIDS crisis was in full force. As Fierstein correctly noted, gay men were a disproportionately large slice of the theater community, and the AIDS epidemic decimated that group in particular. At the same time, there was public hysteria and misinformation about the contagiousness of AIDS, inaction to the point of denial on the part of the Reagan administration, and widespread anti-gay sentiment, just as we saw with the irrational anti-Asian sentiment stoked by the COVID-19 pandemic. Ultimately, the federal government’s inaction led to mobilization on all sides, including the formation of the Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS campaign, which has since raised tens of millions of dollars to support both AIDS research and treatment for persons living with AIDS. The situation also led to vociferous demand from the gay community and others to take AIDS seriously and embark on the necessary research and clinical work to tackle it head on.
All in all, La Cage is not just a great story full of heart, not just an important milestone in LGBTQ+ theater history, but also a megaphone announcing an era in which LGBTQ+ people would no longer simply “come out of the closet,” but would instead demand the dignity and respect to announce “I Am What I Am.”